János Bolyai (pronounced [ˈjaː.noʃ ˈboː.jɒ.i]) (December 15, 1802 – January 27, 1860) was a Hungarian mathematician, known for his work in non-Euclidean geometry.
Bolyai was born in the Transylvanian town of Klausenburg, then part of the Habsburg Empire (now Cluj-Napoca in Romania), the son of Zsuzsanna Benkö and the well-known mathematician Farkas Bolyai.
By the age of 13, he had mastered calculus and other forms of analytical mechanics, receiving instruction from his father. He studied at the Royal Engineering College in Vienna from 1818 to 1822. He became so obsessed with Euclid's parallel postulate that his father wrote to him: "For God's sake, I beseech you, give it up. Fear it no less than sensual passions because it too may take all your time and deprive you of your health, peace of mind and happiness in life". János, however, persisted in his quest and eventually came to the conclusion that the postulate is independent of the other axioms of geometry and that different consistent geometries can be constructed on its negation. He wrote to his father: "Out of nothing I have created a strange new universe". Between 1820 and 1823 he prepared a treatise on a complete system of non-Euclidean geometry. Bolyai's work was published in 1832 as an appendix to a mathematics textbook by his father.
Gauss, on reading the Appendix, wrote to a friend saying "I regard this young geometer Bolyai as a genius of the first order". In 1848 Bolyai discovered not only that Lobachevsky had published a similar piece of work in 1829, but also a generalization of this theory. As far as is known, Lobachevsky published his work a few years earlier than Bolyai, but it contained only hyperbolic geometry. Bolyai and Lobachevsky did not know each other or each other's works.
In addition to his work in the geometry, Bolyai developed a rigorous geometric concept of complex numbers as ordered pairs of real numbers. Although he never published more than the 24 pages of the Appendix, he left more than 20,000 pages of mathematical manuscripts when he died. These can now be found in the Bolyai-Teleki library in Târgu-Mureş, where Bolyai died.
He was an accomplished polyglot speaking nine foreign languages, including Chinese and Tibetan. He learned the violin and performed in Vienna. No original portrait of Bolyai survives. An unauthentic picture appears in some encyclopedias and on a Hungarian postage stamp.
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